When she published The Awakening in 1899, Kate Chopin startled her public with a frank portrayal of a woman’s social, sexual, and spiritual awakening. Because it told its particular truth without judgment or censure, the public disapproved.
The idea of a true autonomy for women, or, more astounding yet a single sexual standard for men and women — was too much to imagine. Kate Chopin’s presentation of the awakening of her heroine, Edna Pontellier, her unblinking recognition that respectable women did indeed have sexual feelings proved too strong for many who read her novel.
Love and passion, marriage and independence, freedom and restraint these are themes realized in this story. When Edna Pontellier, the heroine of The Awakening announces “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” she is addressing the crucial issue of winning of a self, and the keeping of it. But when Edna Pontellier, raised in Presbyterian propriety and a mother of two sons, responds to another Alcée, Chopin, the public thought, had gone too far. “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not” she tells the young man she loves: “I give myself where I choose. ”
Twenty-eight, comfortable in a marriage to an older man involved with his business life in New Orleans, Edna has never settled into the selfless maternal mold of the other women who summer at Grand Isle to escape the disease and heat of the city. She begins a journey of self-discovery that leads to several awakenings: to her separateness as a “solitary soul,” to the pleasures of “swimming far out” in the seductive sensuously appealing sea, to the passions revealed in music, to her own desire to create art, to a romantic attachment to a young man, to living on her own, to sexual desire. Robert, the beloved, honorably removes himself to escape entanglement; Alcée, a recognized womanizer and rake, elicits the sexual response. Chopin creates a circle of symbolic characters about her heroine: a devoted wife, an embittered spinster musician, a dour and disapproving father, an understanding doctor, empty headed pleasure seekers. Edna veers between realistic appraisal of her place in the world and romantic longing for Robert, between enjoying the sensual pleasures with Alcée and practically removing herself from her husband’s control.
feminaw Rebirth of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Rebirth in The Awakening
The time Edna spends in water is a suspension of space and time; this is her first attempt at realizing Robert’s impermanence. In a strange way, Edna is taking her self as an object of meditation, where at the extremity of self absorption, she should be able to see through her own selflessness. “As she swam she seemed to be reaching for the unlimited in which to lose herself[emphasis added]” (Chopin 74). Edna has left her earthly existence on the shore and looked forward to a new existence, with the “unlimited”, or nirvana as a tantalizing prize on the other shore. Her mistake lies in looking back.
When Edna looked back toward the shore, she notices the people she left there. She also notices that she has not covered a great distance. Then a “quick vision of death smote her soul” (Chopin 74), a sense of death that reaffirms her selfhood and reminds her of her clinging to Robert. Her meditation is broken by the wavering of her mind to other objects and senses. Her struggle to regain the shore becomes a kind of near-death experience, at the end of which comes an utter physical exhaustion, a stretching of her self’s physical boundary. Edna’s intellectual self, the mind, another creation of ignorance, awakens as well. She begins to “feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul” (Chopin 78).
As Edna’s fortified ego emerges ashore, her attachment to Robert is strengthened. The intimate moment they share at the end of the chapter bespeaks an “acme of bliss,” where “no multitude of words could have been more significant than those moments of silence, or more pregnant with the first-felt throbbings of desire” (Chopin 63, 77).
After Edna’s rebirth from the sea, her sense of self blossoms. She pulls away from the crowd and begins to do as she pleases. Léonce Pontellier’s stern command for her to come inside after the swim goes unheeded. Edna realizes that her will has “blazed up, stubborn and resistant.” In Buddhist philosophy, the concept of the will is one of the five aggregate that forms the self. Edna’s recognition of her will is a good indication that her ego is fully formed, and that in a sense she has moved farther away from achieving nirvana.